In just 20 days, we will arrive at Pluto. It’s an historic mission decades in the making, and it’s going to be the event to make every space-fan’s summer.
Pluto is, in many ways, the last unexplored frontier in our solar system. The planet (reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, but it’s still a fascinating body) was discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh as a dot moving slowly against the background of seemingly unmoving stars. The discovery added a new endpoint to our solar system that held for decades.
But we have never visited it. We haven’t really spent much time exploring the outer solar system beyond the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.
In 1977, the twin Voyager spacecraft launched on their grand tours of the outer solar system. Both were launched on a multi-planet flyby trajectory through the Jovian and Saturnian systems, and Voyager 2 took advantage of the opportunity to also fly by Uranus and Neptune. But neither visited Pluto. And we haven’t sent anything that far into the solar system since, but not for lack of interest in the dwarf planet.
Finally, in 2001, NASA selected the New Horizons spacecraft to do the first in situ science from the vicinity of Pluto. Specifically, the spacecraft, which is about the size of a grand piano, was designed to look into Pluto’s atmosphere, a potential atmosphere on Pluto’s largest moon Charon, to detect other small satellites in the system that we can’t see from Earth, and to take color images of the body for the first time ever. The cameras on board the spacecraft will be able to resolve areas about the size of New York’s Central Park when seen from orbit.
New Horizons left the Earth on January 19, 2006, traveling faster than any other spacecraft. It reached Jupiter in just 13 months, but it’s still taken almost a decade to reach Pluto. But now that we’re on Pluto’s doorstep and nearing the closest encounter of the mission, we’re learning more about everyone’s favorite dwarf planet every day. In the mean time, let Erik Wernquist and the video above take you for a cosmic ride.
For mission updates during the month of July, be sure to follow @NewHorizons2015 on Twitter.